Hour after hour dripped by under the sun, and perhaps Antonia and I were wondering why we didn’t just take a tour after all. Striking it out by ourselves at an early hour from Arequipa to Colca Canyon, we took a bus to Chivay, planning on connecting to Cabanaconde shortly after. “Oh yes, you’ll be able to do that,” the ticket seller told us, but in Spanish. Oh nope, we weren’t able! After wandering through the small town and being pointed in direction after direction, we were resigned to the fact that the only bus to Cabanaconde was the one coming from Arequipa a few hours later, the one we should have taken. Disheartened, we wandered to the road out of town, wondering if a vehicle might come by that we could hitch a ride with. A man came by and struck up conversation. You won’t get to Cabanaconde this way, he said, but then, under the bright sky, we talked about movies, mines, and our home countries. My Spanish was blossoming. Some policemen dropped by to see what was going on; I suppose two blondes hanging by the side of the road for hours isn’t the most common sight. The cops were friendly too, and after further chats, Antonia and I circled back to the bus station, our lost hours filled.
Buses in Peru plod along. We drove along narrow cliff roads, stopping almost as often as we moved. We stopped to let cars pass by in their skinny lanes. We halted to let people off and on, at the most seemingly-random places. But Antonia and I joined the random crowd, for we didn’t ride to Cabanaconde itself. We got off at the San Miguel viewpoint overlooking Colca Canyon. We peered into its depths. That’s where we were going—to the bottom of the world’s second deepest canyon, rivaled only by the nearby Cotahuasi.
Of course, as we exited the bus it began to drizzle, and then solidified into proper rain. Antonia and I scrambled down the muddying path for hours, talking all the while. We had met a couple of months before in Cusco, where we had both been living. We left town around the same time, traveled around, and planned it so our paths would cross one last time. Thus we slid-stepped down the side of the canyon together, with vague directions copied into a notebook in my bag.
We walked just the two of us. We didn’t take a tour group because they’re expensive. We didn’t because the schedules are set, and not by us. We didn’t because we read about the hike online and surmised we could do it ourselves, scribbled notes in hand. Walk from one village to another by taking the path on the right side and you’ll get there.
As dusk—or was it just the rainy mass of fog?—settled in, we came across a woman who told us we were “strong walkers” and led us to her place, which doubled as a hostel. At this later point in my travels I had to count every dollar that left my hands, and I handed a few over to her, something like four, for a room and a warm meal. We stood in her kitchen with her, her husband, and their baby while she cooked for us and told us about her family. She has a daughter studying at university in Germany. Her other children are with relatives in Arequipa so they can attend better schools. There is no cell reception in the canyon where they live so every now and then, she treks up and out (for there are no roads into the depths) to talk to her daughter abroad and her other children a few hours’ away. Spaghetti was served, we gratefully ate, and then retreated under the covers in our dark room, hiding from the damp.
The sun came early. It was drying off. We explored the grounds a bit, admiring the great dewy flowers, before heading on. We had our directions and, really, there weren’t many choices as to where to go, but even so, we asked every person along the way if we were on the correct path to the next village. Bemused, yes.
And so Antonia and I hiked along one side of the canyon, crossed a bridge over the river flowing through the middle, and then ascended along the other side. Clouds hid the sky far overhead. It was as if the world had walls.
After a few hours we arrived at Sangalle, the oasis, stopping point or destination for pretty much all tours to the canyon. In fact, many tours simply descend the switchbacks from Cabanaconde, visit the oasis, then turn around climb up again, missing the length of the canyon. Antonia and I lingered by the pool for a while but I’m no pool sitter and got antsy. I need to walk. We snacked and then began to tackle the switchbacks out of the canyon. We were told it would take about three-and-a-half hours.
So, staring at our feet, we plodded upward and upward, zig-zagging our way. We stopped for breaks and so we could take our eyes off the ground safely to look around, standing still, warding off vertigo. We’d look out over the canyon, and then look at its face in front of us. And then we’d continue huffing up. It took us under three hours and we were pleased with ourselves, strong walkers indeed!
The hiking wasn’t done until we made our way into Cabanaconde though, which we did. We asked around to find the hostel whose name we had written down and whose website had in fact help plan our little trek. It had begun to drizzle again and we gladly cleaned and warmed up after we checked in, huddling in our beds for a while before emerging for dinner at their restaurant. An oven sat in the back and we sat at the table near it, snacking and playing with the restaurant cats.
The next morning we caught a bus back to Arequipa, and then Antonia and I went on our separate ways. Doing the canyon by ourselves wasn’t so hard. I thought about what meant most to me on the hike. Antonia’s company, the view, and the kind, hospitable hostel lady. I would never have stayed with her if we hadn’t plodded down ourselves. My few dollars would not have reached the villages lining the canyon, but instead wads would have been sent back to Arequipa. We had to do some upfront planning, yes, but tours need to be shopped for too. I’d rather have my own schedule and delve into what’s there on its own, not set up for me. I suppose I love that the world doesn’t exist for me but instead, I for it. I walk along, alternating between thoughts and interaction with reality, bared.